The Bight by Elizabeth Bishop

A “bight”, as described in ‘The Bight’ by Elizabeth Bishop is a section of coastline that dips or curves inward. This particular coastline is in Key West, Florida where the poet lived briefly. A great deal of the text of this poem comes from a letter Bishop wrote to her friend and fellow poet, Robert Lowell.  This fact makes a few of the lines clearer. This is especially true for the end of the poem in which she speaks about the landscape as a cluttered desk. 


Summary of The Bight

‘The Bight’ by Elizabeth Bishop describes low tide in a bight where birds, shattered boats, fishermen and the poet herself are part of the scenery. 

The poem begins with the speaker describing how low the water in the bight is, and how it impacts everything else around it. She can see the minerals sticking up from the seafloor, as well as the posts that should be “absorbed” by the water.

In the next lines, she takes note of the birds, such as the man-o-war and pelican that circle and try to make use of the water as they normally would. They’re unsuccessful and she hints that the fishermen who have gathered there have just as much trouble. The whole landscape is a mess, with boats strewn on the shore and shark tails out to dry. But, all the same, she finds some cheer in the chaos. In the last lines, she compares the scene to a desk covered with opened but unanswered letters. 

You can read the full poem here.


Poetic Techniques in The Bight

‘The Bight’ by Elizabeth Bishop is a thirty-six line poem that is contained within one stanza of text. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme, but there are moments of rhyme within the text. For example, “glare” at the end of line two and “Baudelaire” in line seven.

Bishop chose to make use of these scattered instances of rhyme in order to provide the text with some rhythmic unity, but not get bogged down by a particular structure. This technique also ensures that the focus remains on the images and their meanings. Additionally, there are also instances of half or slant rhyme. These are seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For instance, lines thirty-four and thirty-six with “marl” and “cheerful” or “wishbones” in line nineteen and “boats” in line twenty. 


Other Poetic Techniques 

There are a number of other poetic techniques Bishop makes use of in ‘The Bight’. The poem is dense with examples figurative language, like similes, metaphors, and allusions. Many of these are noted within the body of the analysis. But, as an example, the first standout metaphor is the comparison between the sheer nature of the water at low tide and a gas flame that’s about to be turned out. Then, a wonderful example of a simile occurs around line thirteen in which the pelicans diving into the water are compared to pickaxes. 

Repetition is another technique Bishop makes use of in ‘The Bight’. It can be seen in the poet’s focus on the actions of the birds and boats, as well as in the use and reuse of words like “marl” and “dock”. Alliteration is also present in ‘The Bight’.  It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, in line ten with “plays” and “pickaxes”.


Analysis of The Bight

Lines 1-6

At low tide like this how sheer the water is.

White, crumbling ribs of marl protrude and glare

and the boats are dry, the pilings dry as matches.

Absorbing, rather than being absorbed,

the water in the bight doesn’t wet anything,

the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible.

In the first lines of ‘The Bight,’ the speaker begins by taking note of how “sheer” or see-through, the water appears when it is low. There is less to look through, therefore it is clearer. The “low tide” is an important image throughout the rest of the poem. The speaker adds onto this, saying that because the water is low the “ribs of marl”, a kind of mineral, were sticking out of the water in a place where they shouldn’t have been. She describes them violently, as protrusions that “glare” in the light. 

Bishop’s scene is expanded further as she takes note of the “boats” that “are dry, the pilings dry as matches”. Because the water is low, nothing is as it should be. The “pilings” or supports for the docks, are sucking up any water, rather than being absorbed by the water. 

In a reminder to the reader that she is speaking about “the bight”, or a curve in a coastline, the speaker says that “the water in the bight doesn’t wet anything”. This is by definition an oxymoron as water is always wet. But, this water makes no impact. It isn’t moving or rising. It just sits, with everything drying out around it. 

In a very original metaphor, Bishop compares the water to “the gas flame turned as low as possible”. It’s still lit, but as will become clear in the next lines, it’s starting to falter. 


Lines 7-8

One can smell it turning to gas; if one were Baudelaire

one could probably hear it turning to marimba music.

In the seventh line, the speaker begins by picking up the gas flame metaphor. It’s so low, the gas smell is starting to come through. From this point, she references Charles Baudelaire the French poet, essayist and art critic. She states that if he were there, or if one was like him, they’d be able to “hear” the smell of the flame “turning to marimba music”.

This statement seems out of place, and it is not entirely clear what Bishop was referring to. Perhaps, she was considering Baudelaire’s own research into “sensory correspondences”. According to the University of Chicago, he had a theory that “every colour, sound, odour, conceptualized emotion…very visual image, even if complex…is in some way bound up with an equivalent in each of the other fields: one only, we may infer”. This line of inquiry, which is often associated with (but isn’t) synesthesia, is one of the ways Baudelaire sought to change the way people understood poetry. 


Lines 9-15

The little ocher dredge at work off the end of the dock

already plays the dry perfectly off-beat claves.

The birds are outsize. Pelicans crash

into this peculiar gas unnecessarily hard,

it seems to me, like pickaxes,

rarely coming up with anything to show for it,

and going off with humorous elbowings.

Picking up the next line, the speaker says that she can see a “dredge” or apparatus used for bringing up underwater objects, working in the distance. She connects this line into the music reference, stating that it “already plays the dry perfectly off-beat claves”. Claves are hardwood sticks used to make a hollow sound. 

The birds in the scene are as confused and concerned by the low tide as the speaker is interested in it. They are “outsize” compared to how much water there is. She mentions the pelicans with a simile, comparing how they crash with too much force into the surface to  “pickaxes”. This is another example where the figurative language is used to give the scene a more violent or desperate tone. At the same time, that violent dive into the water results in the poet describing their movements as “humorous elbowings”. 


Lines 16-23

Black-and-white man-of-war birds soar

on impalpable drafts

and open their tails like scissors on the curves

or tense them like wishbones, till they tremble.

The frowsy sponge boats keep coming in

with the obliging air of retrievers,

bristling with jackstraw gaffs and hooks

and decorated with bobbles of sponges.

The birds are examined in even more detail in the next set of lines. She takes note of the “man-of-war birds” carried along on “impalpable drafts”. Their tails are like “scissors” and they “tense them like wishbones”. In addition to the birds circling the water, there are also “frowsy” or neglected, “sponge boats”. They “keep coming” into the bight with their “gaffs” or barbed spears for catching large fish and “hooks” looking for sponges. 

In the twenty-second line the speaker describes the “gaffs and hooks” as “jackstraw”. This is a reference to a game in which straws or pieces of fabric are piled and then pulled out one out at a time. This has to occur without disturbing the rest of the pile. With this allusion in mind, one can imagine that the spears and hooks are crossing over one another dangerously. 


Lines 24-31

There is a fence of chicken wire along the dock

where, glinting like little plowshares,

the blue-gray shark tails are hung up to dry

for the Chinese-restaurant trade.

Some of the little white boats are still piled up

against each other, or lie on their sides, stove in,

and not yet salvaged, if they ever will be, from the last bad storm,

like torn-open, unanswered letters.

The speaker moves in from the water to the shore. There, she notices the “fence of chicken wire”. It was on the dock where “the blue-gray shark tales are hung”. The scene is becoming more and more complex. Its also becoming clear that a lot of people, and animals, depend on the bight to survive. 

The violence of the scene is reiterated in the next lines as she describes the little white boats, presumably used for shark finning, piled up. They were together, on their sides after a storm. There is a great deal of alliteration in these lines with the use and reuse of words beginning with the letter “s”. These “s” words come together to speak about then “sides” of the “ships”. How they are “stove in” and “not yet “salvaged” from the “storm”. 


Lines 32-36 

The bight is littered with old correspondences.

Click. Click. Goes the dredge,

and brings up a dripping jawful of marl.

All the untidy activity continues,

awful but cheerful.

In the last five lines of ‘The Bight,’ the speaker adds, the “bight is littered with old correspondences”. This statement is brief, leaving the reader to ponder what it means. The speaker immediately moves back to the dredge out in the water going “Click. Click”. She describes how the dredge is working, but it’s only bringing up jarfuls of “marl”. Despite the untidiness of the activities, they continue on cheerfully. 

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